While profit rules, the railways will never be safe!

Workers' Fight workplace bulletin editorials
27 February 2007

5 years after the Potters Bar crash, which killed 7 people, another train derailment has killed one person and injured 22, five of them seriously, including the driver. This time it was a Virgin Pendolino service - which came off the track in Cumbria last Friday evening. And so far, it looks as if it was down to the self-same cause as the Potter's Bar derailment: defective points maintenance. It appears that stretcher bars which hold the rails apart, came off and one has gone missing completely.

We are told that thanks to the "state of the art" construction of the Pendolino trains, passengers were "protected" from serious injury despite the fact that 6 of the 9 carriages tumbled down a steep embankment and were severely damaged.

But this train was travelling at 95 mph on tracks which are anything but "state of the art". Instead of being wholly replaced by new tracks, the West Coast Mainline, one of the busiest in Europe, has been undergoing a patchwork "modernisation" ever since the days of Railtrack. The points are at least 30 years old and the line itself was constructed for trains designed in Victorian times!

In this, the takeover of the privatised Railtrack by state-controlled Network Rail in 2002 has not made an ounce of difference to a patently unsafe strategy. By excluding contractors like Jarvis (which got off scott-free after Potters Bar) and taking maintenance back in-house, Network Rail said safety would improve. But it is forever enforcing cost-efficiencies on its workforce and boasts of how it operates as a commercial business. Its object is to make profits, even if it does not pay dividends, no doubt in preparation for a future re-privatisation which has always been part of this government's objectives. It may be accountable to a government quango, but it is run by 4 executive directors, all ex-CEOs of private companies which benefit from government contracts like Bechtel, Costain, Halliburton and Tubelines, to be exact.

What is more, among the "members" of Network Rail are the same private train operators, including the flamboyant owner of Virgin, Richard Branson, who pay for track use. Keeping costs down is therefore their main preoccupation. How does that improve safety?

As long as King Profit rules public services - as it does, thanks to Labour's servility to big business - these services will never be safe.